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Three lessons for sustaining business behavior change

Posted by Chad O'Connor  September 4, 2012 11:00 AM

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This is a story about a diversified regional financial services organization with more than 1,300 banking centers and more than $100 billion in assets. The company provides a range of services to individual and commercial customers, ranging from retail banking to mortgage and investment products. The organization’s vision is to be “the bank that people value and trust,” and its strategy – which it calls “My Bank” – is to differentiate itself by providing smart financial solutions and superior customer service to its business and retail customers.

The successful execution of the My Bank strategy required building a customer- focused organization: all customers must be able to expect the same high level of differentiated banking service provided by the company’s sales and service people and systems. The bank was particularly concerned about sustaining the strategy over time so that it would generate customer loyalty and growth and produce consistent long-term operating results.

This company, like so many others, understood that a major strategy change required its employees to behave differently. It knew it needed to train its workforce in order to bring about the shift. But people often slip back into their old ways. How would the company sustain the change?

We designed a three-step process that focused on defining the specific business outcomes expected from My Bank, measuring the results of training programs and providing hands-on learning.

As a result, the My Bank initiative has achieved significant results to date. All lines of business reported substantially improved operational performance in its first year, including a 12-percent increase in the customer engagement index score of the Business Banking Group and an extraordinary 329-percent increase in sales of complex products in the bank’s Customer Contact Center. The bank also posted the highest average monthly revenue trend in five years from its mortgage/consumer line.

How did it happen?

Requiring People to Change Their Behavior
To compete in today’s business environment, companies must be agile — constantly scanning the environment for threats and opportunities, and taking action to drive business results. However, organizations often struggle with implementing specific, strategic change initiatives to improve business. Often the key challenge is in successfully executing strategies that require people to change their behavior.

For example, a new strategy may require salespeople to call at higher levels in their client organizations and to take a more consultative approach. Or people may need to collaborate across geographic and functional lines in developing and marketing a new capability. In some scenarios, managers must increase the innovation and productivity of their teams by creating an engaging environment. These “soft skills” may not seem essential to delivering bottom-line business results, but more than 20 years of business research has found that about 70 percent of strategic initiatives fail to deliver the expected results. The main reason for failure is “people issues.”

Creating and sustaining behavior change is a critical strategic issue for most companies. After surveying 223 global businesspeople, Forum found the following results:

• Strategy execution requires behavior change
• Companies have difficulty sustaining behavior change
• Lack of management commitment and measurement were cited as main reasons change initiatives fail
• Only 20 percent of organizations are able to demonstrate results to management
• Respondents rated the sustaining phase — the time after a training event — as the most important phase in creating lasting impact

Despite the acknowledgement that the sustaining phase is most impactful, organizations invest relatively little time and resources there Respondents considered the three phases of a behavior change initiative — Aligning, Equipping and Sustaining — and identified the one that created the most impact on behavior change in their organization. The Aligning phase sets a common direction; the Equipping phase provides people with tools and training; and the Sustaining phase provides ongoing support and reinforcement. Almost half (49 percent) of respondents rated Sustaining as most important, followed by Aligning (28 percent) and Equipping (23 percent).

Infographic courtesy of Forum Corp.

Business Change Requires Behavior Change

Making Behavior Change Stick
These preliminary findings suggest that companies can be more effective in sustaining behavior change, and ensuring successful strategy execution, by paying attention to the following conclusions:

1. Sustaining behavior change takes investment in time and resources. While most respondents acknowledged that it is necessary to take action after training to sustain change in order to realize lasting impact, and respondents identified a range of activities for doing so, in reality most focused their energies more on training delivery (Equipping) than on the up-front and follow-up activities needed to sustain results.

2. Sustaining behavior change requires a disciplined approach to measurement. Sustainment Leaders (organizations that described themselves as “effective” or “highly effective” at sustaining change) were better able than Laggards (organizations that rated themselves as “not at all effective” or “somewhat effective” at sustaining change) to demonstrate to management that their change initiatives produced results.

3. Sustaining behavior change takes buy-in from management. Sustainment Leaders were more likely than Laggards to hold managers accountable for behavior change after training. By being able to demonstrate results and investing time and resources in follow-up, they evidently were able to gain the commitment of managers and to enlist them in helping learners apply their training on the job in a way that generates lasting business impact.

By applying these methods, organizations can effectively optimize behavior change for business impact.

Tom Atkinson, Ph.D., is director of customer research at The Forum Corp., a Boston-based premiere learning organization.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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